Barring a change of heart by coach Bill Parcells, veteran defensive back Marcus Coleman will replace rookie Pat Watkins as the starting free safety when the Dallas Cowboys face the Carolina Panthers on Sunday night.
Parcells suggested after Monday's loss to the New York Giants that a change was going to be considered, and Watkins, who started the first six games of the year, did not work at all this week with the No. 1 offense. Instead, Coleman took most of the snaps, and Keith Davis, who started at free safety in 2005, also got some work. Sources said Coleman will be the starter.
The Cowboys started the same quartet in the secondary in each of their first six outings.
A fifth-round draft choice from Florida State, Watkins has struggled and surrendered too many long passes. While he has been in position to make plays on several occasions, Watkins has lost sight of the ball or taken poor angles.
In two of the past three games, Watkins has permitted at least four completions of 40-plus yards. Three of those pass plays were for touchdowns, including a 50-yard score by Plaxico Burress of the Giants on the opening possession Monday night. The play was reflective of Watkins' woes, as he appeared to have Burress covered but misjudged the ball and was out of position.
Watkins has 22 tackles, four passes defensed and two forced fumbles, and he has played well against the run. There is no denying his long-term potential, but his lack of awareness has become such a deficiency that opponents are now exploiting it, and the Cowboys need to remedy the problem. They hope Coleman, a savvy player with good size (6-feet-2, 215 pounds), will bring maturity and a more physical presence to the position.
The versatile Coleman, who has started at cornerback and safety during his 10-year career, was signed this spring to provide the Cowboys veteran depth and flexibility in the secondary. He played in the preseason in nickel and dime packages, then was suspended for four games before the start of the regular season for a violation of the NFL substance abuse policy.
He made his season debut Monday, playing mostly on special teams, and had one tackle.
Primarily a cornerback for the first eight seasons of his NFL career, much of that tenure spent with the New York Jets, Coleman moved to safety in 2004 with the Houston Texans and played well at the new position. He started 12 games at free safety in '04 and, despite missing the final month of the season with a shoulder injury, registered 80 tackles, two interceptions and eight passes defensed.
Coleman, 32, played in 15 games last season, with 11 starts, and had 66 tackles, one interception and three passes defensed. With the Texans intent on getting younger at the position, and on dumping Coleman's contract, he was replaced in the lineup by rookie C.C. Harris for the final month of the campaign and then released in the spring.
A former Texas Tech standout, Coleman was chosen by the Jets in the fifth round of the 1996 draft. He played six seasons in New York (1996-2001) before being shipped to the Texans in 2002 as part of a deal the two teams made in the expansion draft to stock the Houston roster with veterans.
Coleman has 561 tackles, 25 interceptions, 136 passes defensed, five forced fumbles and two recoveries for his career, while appearing in 150 games and starting 101 of them. In a five-season stretch from 1999-2003, Coleman posted 20 interceptions, fifth best in the league over that period. That included six interceptions with the Jets in 1999 and seven pickoffs with the Texans in 2003.
Senior writer Len Pasquarelli covers the NFL for ESPN.com.